Recently, I realized something that I’d known intellectually but had never experienced:
It’s hard to visit a church as a single Christian.
I got married straight out of college. I’d always visited churches with my parents or my friends or my husband and kids, never alone. We’d settled into one church for a year before we decided it was time to move on. But to maintain continuity for the kids, my husband was taking them to the old church until I found a suitable congregation. So I was visiting churches. Alone.
Solo. One. Alone.
And I definitely felt alone, sitting in the pew (or chair), watching couples and families and groups of friends wander into the sanctuary/worship center/gathering place. Aside from one teeny-tiny church and the slightly bigger one we chose, I was ignored. Very little eye contact, few smiles, no interest or acknowledgement of me as a person.
Forget the word alone. Try lonely. It stinks.
—my husband’s response to my profound realization that being single in church is hard
He was 31 when we got married, so he’d spent plenty of time in the church singles group and knew how singles were treated at our old church. I’d been a part of the group, too, albeit as a college student who lived with my parents.
They were “separate but equal” church members. (As we all know, separate but equal is anything but equal.) It wasn’t official, and no one in authority would’ve acknowledged this, but it was still there.
They held Sunday school at a building down the street, off the main church campus. They had their own Bible study, their own church parties, and there wasn’t a lot of mixing between singles and marrieds. The ladies’ Bible studies were rarely held at a time that accommodated working women.
Unless they were otherwise visible, like soloists, a lot of other members didn’t know them. I knew a lot of young couples because I taught 3- and 4- year old Sunday school, and if I’d mentioned one particular single to one of the parents, I’d get a blank stare. “I don’t know them.”
And if I mentioned one of the couples to a single, I’d get the same response. “I don’t know them.”
Wait a minute, I’d yell mentally. You’re roughly the same age, you’ve gone to the same church for ten years, you sing the same worship songs and listen to the same sermons and sit in the same sanctuary. And you’ve never heard of each other? The church isn’t that big, for crying out loud!
Then there’s the general attitude toward singles. I’ve met more than one person who seems wary, almost suspicious of non-married Christians:
What’s wrong with those singles? Because, obviously, if they were normal, they’d be married. There must be something wrong!
(At which I roll my eyes or gag or flip my hair over my shoulder in my best valley girl style and say, “Like, whatever.”)
But the more prevailing problem, I think, is that churches are geared toward married people with kids, and so every program, every conference, everything revolves around the twin topics of marriage and parenting.
Many sermon illustrations use parent/marriage topics, too. (I’d guess that’s because most ministers are married and they draw on their life experiences for illustrations.)
Also, at least where I live, many women are too accustomed to discussing marriage and/or children and cannot talk about any other topic, which alienates those who don’t relate to those experiences.
Several years ago, I ran into a woman I knew from the singles group. She told me a sad story about a mutual acquaintance (another forty-ish single woman) who’d attended a women’s dinner at our church. The friend found that the other women seemed uncomfortable with her presence, as if they didn’t know how to talk to her. My friend said, “It’s not that difficult! Surely they remember being single.”
I didn’t have a reply. But now, after eleven years of hanging around other moms, I think I do. These women really didn’t remember being single. They’d been married for so long that their single years were a distant memory. (That is, if they’d ever been single beyond young adulthood. Being single at 20 is different from being single at 30 or 50.)
For many of these women, their married life had revolved around their children. Heck, their entire world revolved around the kids. (I’ve met women who can’t talk about anything other than their children. Literally. I’d raise a different topic and watch their eyes go blank.)
When many women meet another woman, their standard opening line is child-related. Not always, but often. It’s a short cut, the obvious topic. I’ve done it myself. And when faced with someone who doesn’t have that in common with me, small talk can seem daunting. What do we have in common?
Well, for Christians, the answer is Jesus. Duh.
So there’s no excuse for ignoring people because of their marital status.
Or treating them as defective, second class Christians.
Or ignoring their needs.
Overall, churches are uncertain how to handle people who don’t fit their usual demographic of married with kids. I’ve seen this; I’ve read about it; I’ve heard complaints and comments. I just hadn’t experienced it.
I still haven’t, of course, not really. When asked, I always explain the solo-church-visiting situation: yes, I am married, yes, I have children, but we don’t want to drag them from church to church to church, so he’s going to one church and— blah, blah, blah. I take refuge behind my wedding band. I take comfort in knowing there are people waiting at home for me. But lots of other people can’t do that.
Here’s what I want and need to know. What can a church do to make single Christians feel welcome as visitors? What can I personally do to help singles feel welcome and cared about?